“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Fear of the unknown is something that has been with mankind from the very beginning. Man’s first instincts and emotions formed his response to the environment in which he found himself. The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers an omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind.
The Ancient Greeks believed in gods and goddesses who, they thought, had control over the world and of people’s lives. And they prayed to these gods for help and protection, because if the gods were unhappy, they would punish them. As time went on, they started to seek explanations based on natural principles rather than gods as primary causes, and became the first natural philosophers (or what we know call scientists).
Science has since then helped us explain many of these previously unknown phenomena, but it has also shown us how much still remains unknown in the vastness of the universe.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American writer of weird fiction born in 1890, who introduced “the unknown” as the object of fear. The novelty of his approach lies in the exploration of new scientific areas in which the possibility of new, unknown beings hiding among the stars arose. The vast, infinite cosmic depth produces an overwhelming emotion that paralyses us.
A Biography of H.P. Lovecraft
Alienation, insignificance, fear, anxiety and madness are all recurring themes in Lovecraft’s work, and which he experienced first-hand throughout his life. It is important then, to know of his biography.
Lovecraft was an insecure and anxious boy, who suffered from frequent illnesses, many of them apparently psychological. When he was three years old, his father Winfield Scott Lovecraft was committed to a mental asylum after a psychotic episode and later died of syphilis. His mother, Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft became overprotective of him, never letting him out of her sight. Lovecraft’s maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips became a father figure to him, introducing him to classical literature, poetry and weird tales, and ironically even helping him overcome his fear of the dark. He became the centre of his entire universe. Lovecraft was a precocious youth: he was reciting poetry at age two, reading at age three, and writing at age six or seven. He became an avid reader, and he would spent most of his time in his private library.
The death of his grandmother, Robie, had a profound effect on him, it sent his family into “a gloom from which it never fully recovered”. His mother and aunts wore black dresses to mourn her death, and Lovecraft started having nightmares of beings referred to as night-gaunts. They would snatch him up and carry him through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead and horrible cities, until they’d reach a grey void full of needle-like pinnacles of enormous mountains, where they would let him drop. He would wake up screaming. These creatures later appeared in Lovecraft’s fiction.
After the death of his grandfather, Lovecraft and his mother would be forced to leave their lavish Victorian home which they lived in, and move to a more modest house. Lovecraft called this one of the darkest times of his life, where he saw no point in living anymore and considered committing suicide. However, his desire for knowledge and contemplation on how much there was still left to explore prevented him from doing so.
At the age of eight he discovered science, first chemistry, then astronomy. The latter would have a big impact on his future writings, gaining a sense of the vast universe and the insignificance of humanity within the cosmos.
At school Lovecraft excelled at all subjects, except for mathematics. And in 1908, he experienced a nervous collapse while studying at high school. He dropped out and remained self-taught for the rest of his life.
Lovecraft would develop a love-hate relationship with his mother. She would call him hideous and say that he hid from everyone and did not like to go out where people could gaze on him. He actually grew up to believe this, and there are reports that he would walk along the streets hiding his face in a raincoat so that nobody could see him.
Lovecraft was invited to a group of amateur journalists, and obtained a renewal to live. For the first time, he met with like-minded individuals and felt at home. He became involved in detailed correspondence with many people and eventually became one of the most prolific letter-writers of the century. Lovecraft wrote an estimated of 100,000 letters during his lifetime, many of which are as interesting as his stories, and give us a deep understanding of his lifestyle and beliefs.
In 1921, Lovecraft’s mother experienced a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the same place Lovecraft’s father had died 21 years ago. She died after complications from an operation on her gallbladder. Lovecraft again experienced a deep state of sadness and contemplated suicide.
He eventually recovered and shortly met Sonia Greene, who became his wife, and they moved to New York. However, they both had financial issues and eventually had to part ways as his wife’s employment required constant travel, Lovecraft could also not stand living in New York, he felt alienated in an enormous city full of foreigners. His own detachment thus contributed to the general atmosphere of his writings. At his time, racism and xenophobia was not uncommon, and Lovecraft fell victim to it as well. But we must also understand that he was a product of his time. Nevertheless, it remains a highly controversial aspect of his popular reception.
In 1926, Lovecraft returned to his beloved homeland in Providence, Rhode Island where he would live until his death. He famously wrote: “I am Providence.”
He continued living at the verge of poverty, and most of his great works appeared in cheap pulp magazines, many of them remaining practically unknown. Lovecraft’s health was deteriorating, and after experiencing excruciating pain making him physically incapable of holding a pen, he paid a visit to the doctor. The cancer had spread to his intestine. He remained in constant pain until his death in 1937.
It is likely that he died convinced that his work would dissipate into nothingness. Lovecraft’s traumatic life could easily have ended differently, but he did not let the dark times discourage him, they instead inspired him to continue writing.
Luckily, many of his friends saw the value in his work and were determined to preserve his work. Today, he is considered as one of the greatest weird fiction writers the world has ever seen.
Lovecraft’s stories don’t really focus on character development as much as the phenomena surrounding them and their emotions experiencing the unknown. The bleakness of his stories is quite refreshing, and few writers have written so poignantly. His writings can really shake you up.
Lovecraft shifted the source of horror from the traditional belief in vampires, ghosts and demons, to the immense and unplumbed abysses beyond space and time. As mentioned, from an early age, he attained the idea that humanity is cosmically insignificant from his studies of astronomy. The universe compared to the infinitely small earth and humanity’s existence is so vast, that from a cosmic perspective, human history, knowledge, religion, etc., is completely irrelevant and meaningless.
Lovecraft emphasises the fear of the unknown and unknowable. The fear we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs. His philosophy is known as Cosmicism, which focuses on the insignificance of humanity and its doings at the cosmos-at-large, in contrast to the anthropocentric philosophies in which many find intellectual reassurance. This form of non-anthropocentrism is crucial to the philosophy of Cosmicism.
The question of the meaning of life was better left unanswered. Cosmicism is a type of extreme existentialism, as it brings up the uncertainty about the role of humanity in the uncaring universe, an existential crisis on a large scale.
Lovecraft embraces the truth of reality. Things are important to us on the human scale, but we simply don’t matter in the cosmos. He described us as:
“… the miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Maurice W. Moe (May 15, 1918)
Lovecraft portrays us human beings as ants in the vast realms of space and time, an incomprehensibly large universe that creates a fear of the cosmic void. This constitutes a serious blow to mankind’s self-confidence. After millennia of living in the darkness, turning on the light will make us realise that there are others living with us. He thought that there was a point in which we could not cope with scientific discoveries.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Scientific discovery in Lovecraft’s work is both fascinating and terrible and he sees in it not the potential for the enlightenment of humanity, but as the ultimate exterminator of our human species. Knowledge is a self-annihilating disease. The contemplation of mankind’s place in the vast, comfortless and cold universe revealed by modern science gives way to the discovery of unfathomable things, which our mortal brains cannot comprehend.
In The Colour out of Space, one of Lovecraft’s personal favourites, a meteorite with an indescribable colour crashes on a farm. It was only by analogy that they called it a colour at all. As things from beyond the cosmos enter our world, they retain their external qualities to such a degree that humans cannot perceive and understand them.
This cosmic malady made of a never-before seen colour from outer space upsets human perception and eludes all scientific explanation, an unknown force poisons every living thing, while people go insane or die one by one.
Lovecraft’s cosmic horror was achieved through devices that would, he hoped, feel completely foreign and unknown to the reader. This mood was meant to be crafted in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory – a hard goal to achieve.
However, Cosmicism does not only mean the fear of the cosmic depths. In Lovecraft’s stories, the unknown forces also lurk in the depth of the Earth, oceans, distant territories and in the equally vast recesses of the dreamlands.
The Cthulhu Mythos: Introduction
Lovecraft explored this preternatural territory through what is known as the Cthulhu mythos. Although he did not coin this term himself. This word is supposed to be a completely non-human word, and there is no correct way to pronounce it. However, Lovecraft wrote that the closest pronunciation is “Khlûl′-hloo”.
Unlike most horrific creatures, these entities do not seek our destruction, but rather appear as utterly indifferent to humanity, and it is merely by accident that they have a relationship with us. The coincidental alignment makes these gods no better than the remaining cosmic forces and by ignoring humans they are actually contributing to the sense of alienation. They stand for symbols of cosmic outsideness, which we can only grasp a tiny fraction.
The horror derives from the realisation that common human laws, interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. Consequently, the entities in Lovecraft’s world were not evil, they were far beyond human conceptions of morality. They exist in a dark reality for which nothing is impossible, and is beyond human access. They represent the “essence of externality”, as he writes:
“To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Farnworth Wright (1927)
The Cthulhu mythos comprises a purposely incomplete body of lore rather than a complete system of knowledge. However, Lovecraft talks about several types of entities: Elder Things, Great Old Ones, Deep Ones and Outer Gods. The true horror is the mere knowledge that these entities exist, and have come from the stars long before human civilisation.
The Cthulhu Mythos: The Elder Things
The Elder Things were the first alien species to colonise earth a billion years ago. They created shoggoths, protoplasmic shape-shifting beings able to reflect all forms and organs, who served as slaves to build vast cities, but rebelled against their masters. The great city ruins remain frozen in Antarctica, and some of these entities can be found as fossils or in frozen hibernation. In At the Mountains of Madness, a group of explorers lead an expedition to Antarctica, and are met with the shoggoths:
“It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.”
H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
The Cthulhu Mythos: The Great Old Ones and The Deep Ones
The Great Old Ones, on the other hand, are a group of unique, immortal beings that were rulers and gods over Earth but now reside stagnant yet eternal in various locations around the Earth. These are akin to demigods, Cthulhu is one such entity, the high priest and the great dreamer who lies in a deep slumber beneath the ocean. It is a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head. Octopi, are indeed, some of the most alien creatures to humans on earth.
“The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Cthulhu echoes the word chthonic, one who inhabits the underworld. He resides in the underwater city of R’lyeh, deep within the unknown, within the unconscious. He is sleeping yet eternal, waking yet dreaming, dead yet alive.
“That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Nameless City
This mysterious line expresses Cthulhu’s immense existence beyond human thought: in its eternal form, even the concept of death is no more. He had cast a spell on the Great Old Ones, and while they no longer live, they have never really died. While asleep, they communicate with humans through the dreamlands of the collective unconscious. Cthulhu is a source of constant anxiety for mankind at an unconscious level.
Around the earth, the Cthulhu cult praise the Great Old Ones, chanting:
“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
When the stars are aligned, the underwater city will rise, and, with the help of the eternal Cthulhu cult, the Great Old Ones will awaken and regain what was once theirs.
The cult prays to their own demise, unbeknownst to them, as the entities are beyond good and evil. Any hint of malevolence is strictly the interpretation of the human who seeks an explanation for the unexplainable.
In The Call of Cthulhu, the protagonist who was previously consumed with curiosity and travelled to unravel his mysterious findings, is terrified upon discovering the truth of the existence of the Great Old Ones:
“I shall never sleep calmly again when I think of the horrors that lurk ceaselessly behind life in time and in space.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Lovecraft introduces the Deep Ones in The Shadow over Innsmouth, an ocean-dwelling amphibious humanoid race that have strong ties with Cthulhu, and an affinity for mating with humans. They worship Dagon, the most powerful of the Deep Ones.
The Cthulhu Mythos: The Outer Gods
However, the most powerful of all entities, are the Outer Gods, cosmic entities located beyond the confines of Earth. The most notable ones include: Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep, and Azathoth. Most of them dwell in the outer voids outside of thought and existence, beyond the Ultimate Gate which:
“leads fearsomely and perilously to the Last Void which is outside all earths, all universes, and all matter.”
H.P. Lovecraft, Through the Gates of the Silver Key
The Ultimate Gate can only be unlocked with the silver key, an ancient artifact that unlocks the gate of space and time and allows access to remote places of the universe. It also allows one access to all the possible lives one may live or have lived. This gate is guarded by Yog-Sothoth, for whom time and space shares no boundaries.
“Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror
Yog-Sothoth holds the knowledge of everything and is the gatekeeper of it. Those who worship him seek the key to forbidden knowledge, however, it always leads to madness, as it opens a door to places we were never met to travel.
Lovecraft described Shub-Niggurath as Yog-Sothoth’s wife and a hellish, cloud-like entity. Beyond this, there isn’t much else to her. She can only be referred to as something unknowable (The Not-To-Be-Named one).
While most of the Outer Gods are exiled to the stars; Nyarlathotep, however, is active and frequently walks the Earth in the guise of a human being. He is a go-between for humans and the gods, linking us to the entities beyond comprehension.
As the Crawling Chaos and cosmic shape-shifter, he has infinite shapes and innumerable forms. He is deliberately deceptive and manipulative, representing the archetype of the trickster. He reminds us of the existence of that which we cannot truly know.
Azathoth is the all-powerful creator of existence. He is known as the Blind Idiot God, who is absolutely mindless and unconscious, but is omnipotent and is the most powerful being of the entire mythos. All of reality is merely a part of his dream, unknowingly created by itself. He is a dreaming monster in whose dream the universe resides. Countless lesser deities play maddening tunes on innumerable drums and flutes to keep Azathoth from awakening, for if he should he awaken, all of existence would be no more, and all would once again be Azathoth. He is the embodiment of disorder and cannot be destroyed as the concept of destruction is merely his dream, and he exists beyond all human concepts.
Lovecraft’s fictional gods are relegated to the background of his stories – they are never the focal point and rarely the cause of the unfolding of events, but they are always present, which is an important element of cosmic horror.
Fourth Dimensional Horrors
To express the unknown, Lovecraft used mathematical concepts and bizarre landscapes that should not be able to exist.
“The geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Lovecraft’s use of abnormal geometries to capitalise on the fear of the unknown is found in many of his stories:
“He was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
One gets the impression that Lovecraft had a great intuitive grasp of what glimpses of the fourth dimension would seem like to us, how the geometry would appear “non-Euclidean” and “all wrong.” His descriptions of abominations like Cthulhu fit well with what one would imagine a fourth dimensional creature might be like in our space, how they seemed to have shape that was not made of matter.
It is as if an ant who lives in a two-dimensional world sees a human being, it simply cannot process it, our hand would look like strange bony and fleshly meat with warm pulsing liquid, suddenly appearing and disappearing out of sight.
Similarly, Lovecraft’s cosmic entities and objects exist in dimensions beyond our own.
”All the objects—organic and inorganic alike—were totally beyond description or even comprehension. Gilman sometimes compared the inorganic masses to prisms, labyrinths, clusters of cubes and planes, and Cyclopean buildings; and the organic things struck him variously as groups of bubbles, octopi, centipedes, living Hindoo idols, and intricate Arabesques roused into a kind of ophidian animation. Everything he saw was unspeakably menacing and horrible; and whenever one of the organic entities appeared by its motions to be noticing him, he felt a stark, hideous fright which generally jolted him awake. Of how the organic entities moved, he could tell no more than of how he moved himself. In time he observed a further mystery—the tendency of certain entities to appear suddenly out of empty space, or to disappear totally with equal suddenness.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Dreams in the Witch House
Lovecraft’s world evades any visualisation. We can only hint at their descriptions with our limited knowledge, adding to the uncanniness of the unknown. If we were to be tormented by these creatures, we would be powerless to resist. We cannot perceive them unless they choose to enter our three-dimensional world. They watch our every move, while we see nothing of them. We are entirely at their mercy. At any moment, one of these cosmic entities could seep through into our dimension, instantly kill us, and disappear without trace.
When we see what is supposed to remain unseen, and it becomes the new reality, it induces true cosmic horror, disorientation and anxiety. Having the very fabric of space and time, physics, and the laws of nature change into completely unknown ones is something that leaves one without words, only our emotions are at their mercy.
If we do not know something, we create our own answer (who created the universe, what happens after death, etc.), because we cannot bear the silence of the void.
Many of Lovecraft’s characters seek forbidden knowledge only to descent into madness from the revelation of it. The most forbidden book being the dreaded Necronomicon written by the mad Arab Abdul Al-hazred. The pursuit of knowledge often leads to the character’s death. However, many continue to pursue forbidden knowledge knowing that it may well end up terribly.
Coming to know a certain reality can result in a full or partial destruction of the self. For instance, when given a certain diagnosis of a disease, what was not known is made known and is at least partially horrific because the patient did not always know it to be the case. Yet once the presence of the disease is known, it becomes part of the self. There is no resisting such revelations. There’s no going back.
Lovecraft also had a lifelong interest in dreams and many of his stories are the product of his dreams, the unconscious symbolises the archetype of the unknown. The Dreamlands, in Lovecraft’s world, are windows into forbidden knowledge and forces beyond humanity’s understanding, a vast, uncanny and incomprehensible dimension that can be entered through dreams.
The Dream Cycle is a series of short stories and novellas by Lovecraft, one of the most notable of which is “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, illustrating the scope and wonder of humankind’s ability to dream. Everyone has their own dreamland, but share a common general land of vision.
Otherness: Anti-Human Becoming
Lovecraft’s stories are so bizarre that the average reader is stripped of all their preconceptions about reality and even their sense of self. In the stories, the characters who fear their loss of individuality and attempt to preserve it are the ones who fall into madness. The concept of Otherness, of the quality of being different, is important to be integrated. The self and the Other are to be simultaneously accepted.
In the story, Through the Gate of the Silver Key, the protagonist Randolph Carter holds the mysterious silver key and opens the Ultimate Gate, there he sees his past and future selves, yet he also begins to see Carters in every known and suspected age of earth’s history. There Carters are all equally himself. He even notes how each small decision alters who each of those Carters become in their own timelines. This omniscient awareness gives way to a loss of individuality, one learns that one is no longer a definite being distinguished from other beings. Therefore, the Other becomes just as worthy of acceptance and consideration as oneself.
French Philosopher Gilles Deleuze describes this as a transformation from “paranoia” to “schizo-madness”, concepts which are used as philosophical metaphors, describing perceptions of one’s identity.
Those with paranoia have an urge to align everything with their identity and disregard Otherness. On the other hand, schizo-madness refers to an integration of the unconscious, accepting other identities, beings and one’s simultaneous place among them.
This is also reminiscent of Carl Jung’s approach of individuation, where one integrates one’s unconscious contents in order to advance towards the Self. One must accept the loss of individuality by acknowledging that one is not the master of one’s own house, but this is usually met with paranoiac resistance.
Through the reading of Lovecraft, the reader goes through their own anti-human becoming. A window into Otherness unveils the monster as none other than oneself, and the horror to change this is the only monster we are meant to conquer.
In The Outsider, Lovecraft tells the tale of a man who lives in solitude in a decaying dark castle and can’t recall when or if he ever saw a living person. He decides to climb the tower into the unknown outer sky since it was better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever seeing the light of day. He enters a window and is met with people whose faces were hideously distorted with fear, fleeing with horrible screams. The man trembles at the thought of what might be lurking near him unseen, he then sees a reflection:
“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”
H.P. Lovecraft, The Outsider
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The Dark Philosophy of Cosmicism – H.P. Lovecraft
Cosmicism focuses on the insignificance of humanity and its doings at the cosmos-at-large, in contrast to the anthropocentric philosophies in which many find intellectual reassurance.
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